Towards the end of #AnneFrank – Parallel Stories, Helen Mirren memorialises Anne Frank and The Diary of a Young Girl with a simple but lasting tribute, “Anne became the symbol of the horror of the 20th century.” Her legacy is indestructible — cemented by the Anne Frank House, the Holocaust memorial museums, countless education centres and Montessori’s dedicated to her, and films, literature either on her life or her diary. Her writing illustrated a society ravaged and traumatised by war, but it also symbolised the existence of hope in the direst straits. This precise trait of Anne Frank’s, however philosophically disparate it may appear, especially when soldered with a genocide, is what immortalised her.
This documentary on Netflix, in a sense, tries to do something quite similar — attempting to achieve that balance in its ideals, the ones by which she is remembered. It has to forego all forms of dejection and melancholy, and has to preserve the positivity and uplifting words of Anne Frank. It is far too overwrought for a documentary, and this one, unfortunately but understandably, collapses in trying to maintain that equilibrium while covering the history of ethnic cleansing in Germany and Europe.
The main aim of this documentary is to “pass the baton” from the older generations to the younger ones. They are reminded of the sufferings of their ancestors, even their grandparents, some of who are alive, during the Holocaust and the Final Solution. Five Holocaust survivors, who would be as old as Anne Frank now, retell their struggle, a word that cannot nearly encapsulate their past. They are all stories parallel to Anne Frank’s but are “close enough to almost touch each other.” One of the survivors, Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, mentioned how art helped her survive, from exchanging cooking recipes to reciting Edith Piaf. Arianna Szörenyi, another survivor, recounts the indescribable times she was whipped, at the whims of a German guard, for not singing a German merry-go-round. Their sides of the story don’t conclude at the Holocaust. It carries on decades later, too, even today.
Beyond these emotional testimonies, that do paint a harrowing picture, the documentary does very little to give an insight into the facts of this time in history. It is terribly tentative and all a bit jumbled. At one point, you see the interviewees talk about neo-Nazism and the reverberations of the past, and right after that, they discuss how Anne Frank became the icon of the Shoah. The documentary doesn’t have a coherent, successive structure to it. Most of the accounts seem out of place and are poorly stitched together.
When you read Anne Frank’s diary, you see her voice and pennings gradually develop over the two-three years. There is maturity in how she looks at her surroundings and how she perceives the world outside of her claustrophobic box. That growth and maturity seem to be missing here. Her writings lend a hand in understanding the past. You feel and understand her terror when she says, “The Germans strike without the slightest mercy.” This documentary, really, doesn’t quite do that.
What, however, is even more out of place is how literally it takes the idea of passing the baton. The documentary shows a fictional teenager who is on a path of discovery. She is curious about Anne Frank’s life and prowls around Europe to study her history. And I cannot forget to mention, she is a social media blogger whose posts say, “Anne you were almost my age. Could we have been friends? #onyourside”. My best guess is that she is supposed to be the twenty-first century equivalent of Anne Frank — a young girl who is curious about everything that is happening outside her closed quarters. Her social media username is “KaterinaKat,” borrowing Anne Frank’s name for her diary — “Kitty” (not so subtle, is it?).
While the documentary felt the need for a millennial touch-up, it grossly oversimplifies and misreads its audience. It is a fairly contrived and artificial look at how history can be understood. And I am rather certain that it cannot be understood or studied by using arbitrary, woke hashtags we see “KaterinaKat” use — #annihilation, #persecution, #resistance. In trying to appear intelligent, which only comes off as pretentious, it also bears no resemblance to Anne Frank’s diary and its purpose. The prime reason behind maintaining a diary is that Anne Frank does not have a real friend, as she, herself, proclaims. On the other hand, “KaterinaKat” serves no real purpose in the documentary, it is simply an ornament whose presence is terribly distracting.
Helen Mirren, the narrator around whom the documentary pivots, does a glorious job narrating excerpts from The Diary of a Young Girl. I distinctly remember her intense but contained performance in Woman in Gold, where she, an elderly Jewish woman, strives to recover her family’s paintings the Nazis stole. Her voice and dramatic narration is twice as intense here, and her connection to the subject matter is unquestionably personal. And Mirren’s fine narration is supplemented with some beautiful and striking shots. The unadulterated, non-colourised images leave the past as untouched as possible. The black-and-white recording of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, photographs of the Gestapo, even Anne Frank in her school uniform are all evocative of the past horrors. The imagery always shrieks, “Don’t bury the past!”
But sophisticated cinematography and editing aren’t enough to provide a ramp to the, already broken, narrative. At one point, we will hear Mirren read aloud Anne Frank’s diary, at another, a completely unrelated eyewitness account, and at, yet another point, an even more unrelated historical fact. Had the structure of the film been on par with the quality of its more physical attributes, directors Anna Migotto and Sabina Fedeli would have created a more memorable piece of film. Otherwise, this is a missable documentary.
#AnneFrank – Parallel Stories is streaming on Netflix.